Here I am outside Wakefield Prison where Harold Shipman killed himself the night before his 58th birthday, hanging himself with bed-sheets from the prison window. From 1975 to 1998 the doctor became one of the world’s most prolific serial killers in recorded history. In court he was found guilty of 15 murders but an inquiry after his death broadened rapidly to span deaths of at least 218 people. How many people he killed is unknown. A total of 459 people died while under his care.
He lived and had his surgery near my home so when he was arrested aged 50 he appeared on local news regularly. He was a good doctor, my sister took her kids to him and patients said he engendered a calm, comforting bedside manner.
He could have continued murdering for years but a local doctor and funeral director told the South Manchester coroner there was a high death rate among Shipman's patients. He was arrested but inexperienced police officers did not have enough evidence to bring charges. The investigation was abandoned. Shipman didn’t stop and three more people died.
His last victim was Kathleen Grundy. Her daughter became suspicious when her mother’s will excluded her children but left £386,000 (equivalent to £650k now) to Shipman. The corpse was exhumed and morphine was found in the system. Also a typewriter Shipman owned was the type used to type the will. The wheels of investigation sped up and Shipman’s repeated pattern was soon uncovered: he injected his victims with so much morphine they died quickly, he signed their death certificates and then falsified medical records to indicate that they had been in poor health. About 80% of his victims were women. His youngest victim was a 41-year-old man.
Shipman's motive for murder have never been established and he never told anyone. Some people suggest he wanted to be caught because he knew he was getting out of control and some said he wanted to “play God” and feel power over people’s lives.
On 31st January 2000 he was found guilty of killing 15 patients by lethal injections. At the trial he denied his guilt and disputed the scientific evidence against him. He never put forward any statements. The Shipman Inquiry concluded the doctor had killed about 250 people. His wife, Primrose, was in denial about his crimes.
So here I am outside the prison on - can you believe it - Love Lane (I suppose this is apt as I read prisons often survive long prison sentences through love or hate.) I’d driven through Wakefield before but never passed the prison itself. I knew it was an expansive prison but wrongly envisioned it to be set in a semi-rural location. However the Sat-Nav suddenly said Love Land was 300 metres away. I thought I’d entered the wrong address as I was stuck in traffic on a main busy shopping street. I turned a corner and suddenly high sand-coloured walls rose up and this was it - the entrance anyway.
Shoppers were walking by carrying ASDA and Matalan bags as though the prison was a shopping centre. On top of the walls stood many cameras. Over these walls Shipman killed himself at 6:20am on 13th January 2004. At 8:10am he was pronounced dead. Though The Sun ran a celebratory front page headline, "Ship Ship hooray!" many of his victim’s families said they felt cheated and would never find out why Shipman carried out the murders.
Shipman's motive for suicide was never established but these reason have been presented:-
1. He wanted to ensure his wife had financial security after he had been stripped of his NHS pension (he reportedly told this to his probation officer.) Had Shipman lived passed 60 his wife would not have been entitled to a full NHS pension.
2. He sensed his wife Primrose had begun to suspect the overwhelming evidence was true and the father of their children was one of history’s biggest murderers (she had reportedly written him a letter asking him to tell her everything “no matter what".)
3. He was bored and there was nothing ahead but repeating decades.
I pulled up on double yellow lines and turned off the engine. In my rear view mirror was the main entrance to the prison, people in uniforms, a tall brown door for a van. I had a coffee and a cheese and onion sandwich, a little disappointed there weren’t grizzly-looking men at barred windows or two layers of barbed-wire electrified fences.
There were no Little-Hitler traffic wardens around so I had a sprint down a street or two taking photos. Stupidly I did a pose of me holding a pretend remote control box for a drone. Later I would add on a pretend drone dropping drugs into the prison grounds. Bad move. I sprinted back to the car and was pulling the Sat-Nav out from beneath the seat when a prison van pulled up beside me. It parked close by and at a slight angle so I would have to mount the kerb to escape. Oh bum.
An oldish man in a uniform stepped out into the narrow space between the vehicles. Double bum. I wound down my window but part of my brain was thinking my little red love bug of a car could burn off that bulky van any day.
“Hello Sunbeam?” he said dryly.
“Hello, how’re tricks?”
“Turn your engine off for a minute will you? Do you mind telling me what you’re doing here?” the man asked in a manner but with a friendly twinkle in his eye.
My mind was spinning. He wore a uniform - was he a prison employee or policeman? Did he have any power? I was on a double yellow line but it was a public road.
“Just have a looking at the prison. I lived near Harold Shipman - you know “Doctor Death” - and knew he’d killed hung himself here.”
“Oh, wonderful. Where are you going?”
“I’m on the way to Scarborough for the weekend but I’m interested in death stuff to do with infamous people, where they’ve died or their graves. Bit of a geek.”
He didn’t look convinced.
Thank God the company had sent me a new fancy Samsung Galaxy phone weeks before. I got it out and went on my website. With a slightly shaking finger I whizzed up and down the screen showing people whose graves I’ve visited. Shipman and Wakefield would be added to it.
He didn’t look convinced but I doubt he could read the screen without glasses.
“Bit of a nerd about these things,” I said. I was starting to think I might not get into the Harbour Lights restaurant in The Grand Hotel at Scarborough tonight to stuff my gut.
“Is this your car?” I could hear his brain spinning.
“Yes – doubt I’d nick a car like this.”
“Can I take your name?”
“John Halley – like the comet,” but he didn’t write it down, “From Manchester.”
Bit of a pause.
“It’s probably best if you move on – sharpish,” he said neutrally but he bore the demeanour of a man who was about to retire soon and was happily pedalling along until the end day arrived.
“Okay, fair enough.”
“Someone might want to catch up with you later if it’s classed as suspicious.”
What? What did “catch up with you” later mean? Visit me at home? Were smugglers throwing things over the wall that bigger a problem?
“You’re lucky we’re outward bound or we might have asked you to come in for a chat. Someone might if you stop here.”
I assumed they were escorting a bad dude to a court or another prison and considered myself issued with a mini “Get Out Of Jail” card. Thankfully the van drove off and I just managed to get a quick photograph. That cheese and onion sandwich I’d eaten only minutes ago seemed to be wanting to break free already.
Shipman hung himself over those walls using bedsheets
Yeah….I could get a cocaine-laden drone into the prison. Here goes…
I was relieved to see the van go…